BOOK REVIEW / Murder on the Oriental Excess: 'The Arabian Nights: A Companion' - Robert Irwin: Allen Lane, 20 pounds

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The Independent Culture
A JINNI would be envious of the vice-like grip that The Arabian Nights has exerted on the European mind. Generations of children have grown up on 'Aladdin' and 'Ali Baba'. Proust, Voltaire, Dickens, Stendhal and Poe, not to mention Salman Rushdie and Umberto Eco, are just a few luminaries in a long list who have used the Nights as fertiliser for their imaginations.

Robert Irwin's Companion, richly punctuated with anecdotes, chronicles the West's fascination with the Arabian Nights since the first enthralling encounter in the late 17th century. Europe was so impressed with the stories of Scheherazade and her beautiful infidels that the Nights was instantly 'canonised' as high literature. It mattered little that in the Muslim world the Nights was seen, and is still seen, as marginal.

But why should the European imagination be so obsessed with what is after all only a collection of unrelated bawdy tales? Why pick on Scheherazade, when Muslim literature is full of anthologies of stories within stories, vast collections of anecdotes of caliphs and heroes, explorations of Sufi saints and aphorisms of 'wise men' and 'the philosophers'? What distinguishes the Nights from Sadi Sharazi's The Fruit Garden and The Rose Garden, Firdawsi's Shahnama (Book of Kings), the never-ending Stories of Amir Hamza and the exploits of the good princess Gul Bakawli?

The answer is that much of the more authentic literary heritage of the Muslim civilisation does not pander to the base instincts of the Orientalist tradition. With its high philosophic and humanistic content, Islamic literature has been concerned largely with exemplifying universal codes of behaviour. The Nights on the other hand, with its accent on violence and pervasive sexual themes, is a minefield of Orientalist perceptions. It is, as Irwin tells us, 'primarily a work of European literature'.

Europe acquired the Arabian Nights and made it its own in translation. It is not just that the early translations, notably those of Payne and Burton, reflected the fantasies and racist prejudices of Europe, but that these illusions and biases became the Nights. In version after version, as well as countless novels based on the Arabian Nights, orientalism was legitimated and institutionalised.

Irwin is rich on description but rather poor on analysis. He tells us a great deal about the social background of the Nights, but is strangely silent on the fact that Europe was largely ignorant of the true nature of Scheherazade's stories. Moreover, in trying to possess the Nights, Europe also killed the object of its obsession.

The original Nights were supposed to be open-ended stories that were performed by the storytellers. As Irwin notes, the storytellers were masters at mimicking anything from birds and animals to natural disasters, famous people and social types. There was no order to the stories and the detail varied both from storyteller to storyteller and from place to place. Each generation of storytellers added new material and the Nights expanded continuously.

The Nights consists of three distinct and easily distinguishable parts. The first, the Indian element, characterised by long sea journeys and supernatural wonders, rests mainly on the travels of Sinbad. This segment was developed before the advent of al- Masudi, the 10th-century Muslim writer, who described the Nights - rightly for that time - as of Indian origins.

The second part is the Baghdad segment: it is here that we read of 'the good king Harun al-Rashid', singing and dancing girls and the extravagant lifestyle of the rich. The third, Cairene portion of the Nights, was developed during the establishment of the Fatimid state in Egypt. It focuses on the adventures of working class heroes and provides an insight into the low life of Cairo and Damascus.

The Nights would have continued to develop, perhaps a colonial portion would have emerged, except for one thing - the European fixation on the idea of an 'authorised' text. The scholarly pursuit of a definitive version actually put an end to the development of the Nights, impaired the freedom of the storytellers to add new stories as they went along, and achieved what King Shahriyar himself failed to accomplish - to kill Scheherazade] What was meant to be communicated from the mouth to the ears, and to grow endlessly, was frozen between two hard covers and put on library shelves.

Irwin has provided us not so much with a companion, but an obituary of a tradition. Still, Scheherazade has few equals. The story of how she was frozen into history makes captivating reading.